Published in Otherzine Issue 11 Aug 2006
It was a Monday in late September of 1996. I was sitting in my movie theater, The Lighthouse, on Suffolk Street at Rivington, in New York, when the phone rang. It was the New York Times calling. I had been waiting for the call for two months. It was about a feature article, with pictures, about my theater. The story had been written in July and been waiting for available space. The caller told me it would be in the Thursday edition. They wanted me to proof the story for errors. I told them not to run the story. My lease was up at the end of the month and I would be closing the theater and vacating the premises. It was not an uncommon New York story. I had taken a rough space a year earlier and had transformed it into a movie theater. The theater had been written up in all of the New York papers and in a couple of magazines. The Village Voice had led off a “Best in the City” feature with “To The Lighthouse,” a glowing story about my place and me. With the year lease coming to an end my landlord had told me that the new lease would be at over three times the old. I supposed that was because through my efforts the place was much nicer than when I had found it. The landlord realized I could go to court and challenge an eviction. He offered me ten thousand dollars if I would leave quietly. Good press doesn’t always mean good business. I had barely survived the first year. The twenty thousand dollar nest egg I had arrived in New York with was gone. There was no way I could pay three times as much rent. I took the money. It was a wise decision. Six months later my landlord made the front page of the Post for trying to kill two tenants who refused similar offers.
In February I will be showing films at the Cinema Village. What have I been doing the previous ten years? The years as a theater owner, in Seattle as well as New York, had left me the owner of thousands of short films. After closing The Lighthouse I managed to eke out a living curating programs from my collection for various venues in New York, the West Coast, and abroad. My most requested programs include Bad Bugs Bunny, Stag Party Special, Fuck Mickey Mouse, The Mormon Church Explains It All To You, The Dark Side of Dr. Suess, Billie Holiday From First to Last, and The Effect of Dada and Surrealism On Hollywood Movies of the 1930’s. In all I have created over three hundred film programs. In New York I would regularly show films at The Cinema Village, The Pratt Institute, The Collective Unconscious, and at bars and art galleries. Every spring I would take films to Europe. In the summer I would escape the heat of the city by showing films on the west coast.
It was a nice life. It lasted until 1999. In June I was showing films in Portland, Oregon, at the Clinton Street Theater. The Clinton had been a regular stop on my west coast tours. I would usually do a one week run of fourteen film programs. Arriving at the theater I was told it would be closing at the end of the summer. It was the oldest continuously running movie theater in the United States. I made an agreement with my ex-wife in Seattle to take over operation of the theater on September 1st. We had operated a theater together before, and we both liked the challenge of reviving a 350 seat neighborhood movie house built ninety years ago.
I arrived back in New York on July 15 by way of San Francisco. A friend had promised me $100 if I arrived on that date to show films at a gallery. I did the show and was given fifty bucks. Not everyone in NY is as honorable as my former landlord who is now in prison. Twelve days later I rented a truck and collected things I had in storage in several places around Manhattan. That included a pair of 35mm projectors that I had loaned to Films Charas on East 9th. My 1938 Rockola juke box was at Rick Prellinger’s film archive space in the Meatpacking District. Some filing cabinets, theater seats, and other furniture was in the basement of the Cultural Center across the street from Lighthouse. Various things, including my collection of vintage baseball bats, were in the old Andy Warhol warehouse on St. Marks. I managed to collect everything except the theater seats which I donated to the cultural center and the baseball bats which were gone. It wasn’t the end of the world. What actual use did I have for vintage bats engraved with the names of Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Paul Waner, and other Hall of Fame players? The hard job started the next day. My films were stored in Staten Island at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. They occupied half of the top floor of a three story building. It had been built in the 1880’s. The building had a tin roof and no insulation. The city was sweltering under a heat wave when I started moving the films into the truck. Working by myself it took two days of carrying forty pound loads down three flights of stairs. I don’t know what the temperature was in the room under the tin roof. After descending the stairs and stepping outside it would feel cool in the near 100 degrees heat. On the walk back up I would stop to drink a cup of water. On July 30 the truck was fully loaded. I was ten pounds lighter. It was my 46th birthday.
I arrived in Portland on July 11. I was lucky to be alive. The brakes on the truck had gone out in Huntington, Indiana. I was able to stop the truck without damaging anything. The truck company arranged to have the brakes repaired there. Huntington is the home of the Dan Quayle Museum. I had a very pleasant couple of hours there looking at mementos from Huntington’s favorite native son. Back on the road the truck was fine until I neared Iowa City. Going up what seemed to be the only hill in the state there was the loudest bang I had ever heard. It was followed by a sound like a metal bat hitting the inside of garbage can. The truck lost power. I coasted to a stop on the side of the interstate. The bang had been the sound of the drive line breaking. The banging was the sound of the broken drive line hitting the underside of the truck. Parts of the underside were ripped up pretty good. The gas tank was only dented. That was lucky. Tearing the gas tank would have resulted in a fireball that probably would have killed me. Walking along the freeway to an on-ramp that would have a phone I was picked up by a biker who -must have seen the stopped truck and decided to take pity on me. He was a Viet Nam vet on a Harley on his way to the big bike meet in Sturgis.
I spent two nights in Iowa City waiting for the truck to be repaired. It is a nice town. The only drawback was that several bikers on the way to Sturgis were staying at my motel. Many of them were early risers who didn’t like to hit the road before idling and revving their engines for several minutes. The bikers would start about five in the morning and keep it up until I got of bed an hour or two later. I was almost half way to Portland and getting nervous. I shouldn’t have been – the truck was repaired and the forced rest had done me good. The truck labored crossing the Rockies but made it over the top. I arrived in Portland without any further trauma. My arrangement with the Clinton was to do seventeen nights of films starting on Friday the thirteenth of August. The theater would use the money to pay off debts. I took over the theater on September 1. While running the theater I could still take time to go to Europe in spring.
In 2003 I left the Clinton Street Theater, moved to New York and got married. The theater is still in business and doing well. I am going to Europe in April to show films. Once again I will be traveling without corporate sponsorship, public funding or private grants. But things have changed in the ten years since my first tour. As a freelance ambassador of American culture, I am always treated well, but I can see that the image of America has suffered in the eyes of Europeans. Last year I showed a program called Cartoons Too Violent For Children. In Poitiers, France, a young man, visibly upset, asked me why I had included a Superman cartoon in the program. He claimed that it was just a metaphor for George Bush running roughshod over the world. Murmurs in the crowd showed agreement with him. I was taken aback. To me it was just a violent cartoon. I know the reaction to it would have been different ten years earlier. Just as there have been changes in my life, there have been changes in the world. The changes in my life have all been for the good.
Land of a Thousand Balconies by Jack Stevenson was published in 2003. It has a chapter called “The Nyback Chronicles.” The story of the Lighthouse is in that chapter. In 2004 I received a call from a young man in Portland Oregon. He was opening a small movie theater and wanted to call it The Lighthouse. That was fine with me. The Lighthouse lives on.
I made my first film tour of Europe in 1995; since then I have made seven more tours of Europe as well as Japan, Korea, Australia, Iceland, England, and the USA. 2005 may be my last tour of Europe.
Bad Bugs Bunny, first presented in 1995, remains the most popular film program I have created.
Note from 3/3/12: 2005 was not my last film tour of Europe. Last year in early March I was flown to Tampere, Finland for the wonderful festival there. It was my first time in Finland. Both of my grandparents on my father’s side were born there. I remained in Europe for a month and then had a week showing films in England after that.